By Jon Hilkevitch
Tribune Transportation Writer
July 21, 2000

The Federal Aviation Administration Thursday broadened its investigation of an air-traffic slowdown near O'Hare International Airport earlier this week and promised to severely punish agency employees suspected of intentionally forcing hundreds of airline flights nationwide to be delayed or canceled.

FAA officials say they are trying to determine whether the slowdown was the result of a job action on the part of disgruntled controllers or caused by unusual weather phenomena. As part of the investigation, they plan to review tapes of radar and communications between controllers and pilots.Weather conditions over the Midwest and most of the U.S. Monday were reported as ideal for flying by meteorologists at the FAA, the National Weather Service and airline pilots radioing weather updates to air-traffic controllers.

Conflicting accounts over whether strong winds played a role in Monday's delays led many airline passengers to conclude that the FAA was attempting to blame the delays on the weather.

The initial report Tuesday from FAA officials was that information regarding "strong upper altitude winds," broadcast on airport monitors throughout O'Hare, was provided by unionists at the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. But the Chicago Department of Aviation said the wind advisory was provided directly to its operational staff by the FAA.

To sort it all out, FAA Administrator Jane Garvey said Thursday that she had asked Inspector General Kenneth Mead of the U.S. Department of Transportation for help. Garvey said Mead dispatched investigators to determine why the FAA's radar facility in Elgin on Monday reduced the rate of planes arriving at O'Hare from the normal 80 to 100 an hour to as few as 64.

The inspector general's team arrived at the Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) facility in Elgin Thursday and was put to work immediately on a potentialnew problem. Delays at O'Hare ran up to three hours Thursday evening, and neither FAA nor airport officials could attribute the problem to bad weather.

"The investigative team is observing the operation in Elgin and looking into the cause of today's delays as well," FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said.

"Whether there is anything we should be concerned about is not known at this point."

The Tribune reported Tuesday that a group of Elgin controllers carried out a wildcat protest Monday that was behind the delays. Some controllers taking part in the job action, and other controllers highly critical of their colleagues' tactics, said in interviews that the slowdown was meant to protest recent disciplinary action taken against controllers who made technical errors while trying to tighten the spacing between planes.

The controllers' union denied that any slowdown, either an organized union effort or the work of a few controllers, took place. Mike McNally, the union's national president, said he had also ordered an investigation of the events earlier this week.

"If there is any kind of concerted activity, I would squash it in a heartbeat," he said.

But the union did blame the steep decline in the rate of planes arriving Monday at O'Hare on strong upper-altitude winds. On Tuesday, when public anger built over news that the delays might have been created intentionally, the controller union's chief in Elgin also said low-level wind shear was a contributing factor.

The union chief, Charles Bunting, offered to provide records of wind shear reports from Monday, but he later withheld the information.

FAA sources said a preliminary review of weather data collected Monday at O'Hare and in the surrounding airspace uncovered no evidence of strong and unpredictable winds either at ground level, such as a wind shear effect, or at upper altitudes.

Radar tapes and audio recordings of conversations Monday between controllers at the Elgin center and airline pilots have been preserved for the inspector general's investigators, said Eliot Brenner, assistant administrator for public affairs at the FAA.

"The FAA has initiated a formal investigation into the very serious events of last Monday to gather the facts and find out who knew what and when," Brenner said.

FAA officials said swift and decisive punishment will be meted out against any agency personnel found responsible for increasing the spacing between planes with the intention of creating delays.